USN rally in Hayabley. Photo posted on the USN’s Facebook page.
Djibouti is undergoing a major change. For the first time since the independence of this small east African nation in 1977, the opposition party might be elected to parliament in the legislative elections taking place on February 22. To date, the electoral campaign, which started on February 8, has been unfolding calmly. But the political discourse between supporters of the different parties has already soured.
A historic image: thousands of people gathering beneath the banners of the Union for National Salvation (USN), the coalition that brings together the Djiboutian opposition. After ten years of boycotting elections, these political parties are now participating in the legislative elections and running against the UMP, the Union for the Presidential Majority. After having been shut out from political life for the last 36 years, the opposition will now finally be able to sit in parliament.
For this occasion, the president of the Movement for Democratic Renewal and Development (MRD) and spokesperson of the USN, Daher Ahmed Farah, returned from Belgium where he had been in exile for the last nine years. He was arrested upon his return but released two days later.
The multiparty system is not completely foreign to Djibouti. In fact, it has existed in some capacity since 1992. At first, only four parties were allowed to run, but eventually, ten years later, all parties in the political sphere could legally run. However, until now, due to an electoral system that excluded small parties, the opposition had never been able to gain seats in parliament, which was dominated by the old ruling party (the People’s Rally for Progress) and other parties within the UMP coalition.
However, on November 28 of last year, due to a proposal made by President Ismail Omar Guelleh, the National Assembly voted through a law that keeps the first-past-the-post system but adds proportional representation for 20% of seats. This new system makes all the difference for the opposition.
Overall, the campaign has been calm, but some gatherings have become violent. On December 30 of last year, in the Obock region, policemen fired live bullets to disperse a protest about the lack of sports infrastructure. A 14-year-old boy was killed and several people were wounded.
NGOs often criticise Djibouti for curtailing civic liberties. For instance, Reporters Without Borders
has spoken out against the country’s institutionalized censorship and the government monopoly over the news. In a column on Slate Africa
from January 18, two human rights activists accused the Djibouti government of “killings, torture, arbitrary arrests, press censorship, being anti-union, and repressing peaceful protests”.
We asked two of our Observers to share their thoughts on the campaign. One of these Observers is on the opposition side, while the other is an activist for the ruling party. You can also share your opinions in the comments section.